Beijing has set up more than 100 so-called overseas police stations across the globe, including those in Belgrade and Zagreb, to monitor, harass and in some cases repatriate Chinese citizens living in exile, using bilateral security arrangements struck with countries in Europe and Africa to gain a widespread presence internationally, a new report shared exclusively with CNN alleges.
Madrid-based human rights campaigner Safeguard Defenders says it found evidence China was operating 48 additional police stations abroad since the group first revealed the existence of 54 such stations in September.
Its new release – dubbed “Patrol and Persuade” – focuses on the scale of the network and examines the role that joint policing initiatives between China and several European nations, including Italy, Croatia, Serbia and Romania have played in piloting a wider expansion of Chinese overseas stations than was known until the organization’s revelations came out.
Among the fresh claims leveled by the group: that a Chinese citizen was coerced into returning home by operatives working undercover in a Chinese overseas police station in a Paris suburb, expressly recruited for that purpose, in addition to an earlier disclosure that two more Chinese exiles have been forcibly returned from Europe – one in Serbia, the other in Spain.
Who runs the police stations?
Safeguard Defenders, which combs open-source, official Chinese documents for evidence of alleged human rights abuses, said it has identified four different police jurisdictions of China’s Ministry of Public Security active across at least 53 countries, spanning all four corners of the globe, ostensibly to help expatriates from those parts of China with their needs abroad.
Beijing has denied it is running undeclared police forces outside its territory, with its Ministry of Foreign Affairs telling CNN in November: “We hope that relevant parties stop hyping it up to create tensions. Using this as a pretext to smear China is unacceptable.” Instead, China has claimed the facilities are administrative hubs, set up to help Chinese expatriates with tasks like renewing their driver’s licenses. China has also said the offices were a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which had left many citizens locked down in other countries and locked out of China, unable to renew documentation.
When approached by CNN last month about Safeguard Defenders’ original allegations, China’s foreign affairs ministry said the overseas stations were staffed by volunteers. However, the organization’s latest report claims one police network it examined had hired 135 people for its first 21 stations.
The organization also sourced a three-year contract for a worker hired at an overseas station in Stockholm.
Undeclared consular activities outside of a nation’s official diplomatic missions are highly unusual and illegal, unless a host nation has given their explicit consent, and the Safeguard Defenders report claims China’s overseas offices predate the pandemic by several years.
Their reports have prompted investigations in at least 13 different countries so far and enflamed an increasingly heated diplomatic tussle between China and nations like Canada, home to a large Chinese diaspora.
China isn’t the only superpower to be accused of employing extrajudicial means to reach targets for law enforcement or for the purposes of political persecution abroad.
Russia, for instance, has on two occasions been accused of deploying lethal chemical and radioactive substances on British soil to try to assassinate its former spies – allegations Russia has always denied.
In the United States, the CIA was embroiled in a scandal over the extraordinary rendition of terrorism suspects from the streets of Italy to Guantanamo Bay after 9/11.
Yet the suggestion of widescale repression of Chinese citizens in foreign countries comes at a pivotal time for a nation contending with its own unrest at home, amid fatigue at the country’s restrictive zero-Covid policy, as leader Xi Jinping’s third term in power gets under way. Last week, China indicated it would loosen some of its pandemic restrictions, three years after the onset of Covid-19.
As the second largest economy in the world, China has developed a deepening relationship with many of the countries where the new police stations have been allegedly found, raising awkward questions for national governments balancing commercial interests against national security.
China signs police patrol agreements with nations
Italy, which signed a series of bilateral security deals with China over successive governments since 2015, has kept largely silent during the revelations of alleged activities on its soil.
Between 2016 and 2018 Italian police conducted multiple joint patrols with Chinese police – first in Rome and Milan – and later in other cities including Naples where at the same time, Safeguard Defenders says, it has found evidence that a video surveillance system was added to a Chinese residential area ostensibly “to effectively deter crimes there.”
In 2016, an Italian police official told NPR that joint policing would “lead to a wider international cooperation, exchange of information and sharing resources to combat the criminal and terrorist groups that afflict our countries.”
The NGO determines Italy has hosted 11 Chinese police stations, including in Venice and in Prato, near Florence.
One ceremony in Rome to mark the opening of a new station was attended by Italian police officials in 2018, according to videos posted on Chinese websites, demonstrating the close ties between police forces in the two countries.
Earlier this year, the Italian newspaper La Nazione reported local investigations into one of the stations had not unearthed any illegal activity. Il Foglio quoted police chiefs as saying recently that the stations did not present any particular concern as they appeared to be merely bureaucratic.
Italy’s foreign and interior ministries did not reply to questions from CNN.
China also struck similar joint police patrol agreements with Croatia and Serbia between 2018 and 2019 as part of the nation’s increasing strategic footprint along the path of Xi’s defining foreign policy, dubbed the Belt and Road Initiative.
Chinese officers were seen on a joint patrol with their Croatian counterparts on the streets of the capital Zagreb as recently as July of this year, Chinese media reported.
A Zagreb police official interviewed by Xinhua said the patrols were essential for “protecting and attracting foreign tourists.”
A 2019 report from Reuters said Chinese officers had joined Serbian officers on patrol in Belgrade to help address the influx of Chinese tourists. One Serbian officer noted the Chinese didn’t have the power to make arrests.
Safeguard Defenders also says Chinese stations were able to get a toehold in South Africa, and in nearby nations thanks to a similar accord with Pretoria, in place for years.
China began laying the foundations for closer policing ties with South Africa’s law enforcement agencies almost two decades ago, later setting up a network of what are officially called “Overseas Chinese Service Centers” in cooperation with the government of South Africa thanks to successive bilateral security agreements.
China’s consulate in Cape Town has said the plan “unites all the communities, both South Africans and foreign citizens in South Africa.”
Since its establishment, the framework “has been actively preventing crimes against the community and reducing the number of cases significantly,” the consulate has said while noting that the centers are non-profit associations with no “law enforcement authority.”
South African government officials have frequently been featured by Chinese media expressing support for the centers and saying their work has helped police deepen their relationship with Chinese expatriates who live there, according to a 2019 report from the Jamestown China Brief.
CNN reached out to the South African Police Service, but it has not yet received comment.
China tries to return people against their will
Safeguard Defenders stumbled on the police networks while trying to assess the scale of China’s efforts to persuade some of its people to return to China even against their will, which, based on official Chinese data, could number almost a quarter of a million people around the world during the time Xi has been in power.
“What we see coming from China is increasing attempts to crack down on dissent everywhere in the world, to threaten people, harass people, make sure that they are fearful enough so that they remain silent or else face being returned to China against their will,” said Safeguard Defenders Campaign director Laura Harth.
“It will start with phone calls. They might start to intimidate your relatives back in China, to threaten you, do everything really to coax the targets abroad to come back. If that doesn’t work, they will use covert agents abroad. They will send them from Beijing and use methods such as luring and entrapment,” Harth said.
The French interior ministry declined to comment on the allegation that a Chinese citizen was coerced into returning home by a Chinese police station in a Paris suburb.
Reports spark anger and investigations
The revelations have prompted vocal outrage in some countries and a conspicuous silence in others.
Last month, FBI Director Christopher Wray told a Homeland Security Committee he was deeply concerned about the revelations. “It is outrageous to think that the Chinese police would attempt to set up shop, you know, in New York, let’s say, without proper coordination. It violates sovereignty and circumvents standard judicial and law enforcement cooperation processes,” he said.
Ireland has shut down the Chinese police station found on its territory, while the Netherlands, which has taken similar measures, has a probe underway, as does Spain.
Harth told CNN the organization will likely find more stations in the future. “It’s the tip of the iceberg,” she said.
“China is not hiding what it is doing. They expressly say that they are going to expand these operations so let’s take that seriously.
“This is a moment when countries have to consider that it’s a question of upholding the rule of law and human rights in their countries as much for people from China, as for everyone else around the world,” she said.